By KYLE JONES
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK — Living a short drive from FedEx Field, Jessica Gray is a longtime Dallas Cowboys fan in the heart of Redskins territory.
When she chose sides early in the storied rivalry in fifth grade, she did so because she liked the Cowboys cheerleaders, the uniforms and the players. And the fact that the Cowboys immediately drafted black players when they joined the NFL in 1960.
The Redskins were the last team to do so.
“That really speaks to them being a team with a redneck identity that they are okay with perpetuating,” said Gray, who is black, of Upper Marlboro.
Like Gray, many black, Washington-area fans who root for the Redskins’ arch-rival point to the resistance of racist former owner George Preston Marshall to integrate the Redskins in the 1960s.
Though 50 years have passed since Marshall finally integrated the team under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the anti-Marshall sentiment has persisted with a new generation of fans.
“A lot of people in D.C. are Dallas fans because they were one of the first teams to integrate, so that plays a large part of it,” said district Cowboys fan Kwaku Appiah, who was born two decades after the Redskins integrated. “I’m proud to be a fan of a team that integrated so quickly.”
The Los Angeles Rams were the first team to integrate in 1946. The Cowboys franchise was born in 1960 and they immediately added black players to their roster.
The league became fully integrated in 1962 when the Redskins, a 30-year-old franchise at the time, drafted standout running back Ernie Davis from Syracuse.
He was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy. Marshall immediately traded him for Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Brown, who are both black.
Marshall ultimately decided to integrate the team because of pressure from the federal government during the peak of the civil rights movement and because his racist personnel strategy was hurting the Redskins on the field.
The team won one game during the 1960 season and one game during the 1961 season.
“The refusal to integrate was taking its toll,” said Mike Richman, the Washington Redskins official team historian. “Many of the [Redskins] players may have been getting restless.”
So was then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He began pushing Marshall to integrate under an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy in March 1961. Kennedy’s order mandated government contractors hire “without regard to race, creed, color or national origin.”
In December 1959, Marshall signed a 30-year lease to play in District Stadium, now RFK Stadium, on federal property. The deal made him a government contractor and subject to the new regulations prohibiting discrimination.
In addition to his personal preference for segregation, Marshall was also concerned that integrating the team would alienate the Redskins fans south of the district.
In 1960, the Redskins were the only team in the Southern United States and they often played exhibition games in Texas.
That advantage led Marshall to vote against allowing the Cowboys to join the league during the 1960 NFL expansion.
That opposition provided Cowboys fans with a reason to hate the Redskins from the very beginning, helping to establish one of the most intense rivalries in professional sports.
For some younger Cowboys fans in the Washington area, it’s not the Redskins’ racially-tinged history that turned them against the team.
They’re bothered by ongoing moves by the team that they see as racially biased.
The Redskins quickly dismissed black quarterbacks who were struggling, while giving poor-performing white quarterbacks more of a chance to work out bugs, said
Curtis Banks, who has lived in the district for 20 years and has been a Dallas Cowboys fan for nearly as long.
“(Fans) didn’t like how Doug Williams was treated. And Donovan McNabb,” Banks said. “But Rex Grossman gets more time.”
And some fans said they could never root for the Redskins while the team continues to use a name some people consider racist.
“Their name is offensive,” Gray said. “I mean if one person says it’s offensive, then it’s offensive.”
The Redskins began life as the Boston Braves, changing to the Boston Redskins a year later, and finally adopting the Washington Redskins title when they arrived in the district in 1937. In 1999, seven Native Americans from federally-recognized tribes filed a lawsuit asking the courts to prevent the Redskins from using their logo.
The suit was dismissed in 2009 after ten years of hearings and appeals when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder maintains that the name and the logo are not racist, and many Redskins fans agree with him.
For Gray, the name and logo offer another reason to support the Cowboys instead of the Redskins. “I just don’t get how people can root for them,” Gray said.
But she doesn’t have to look far to find someone who does. Her husband and his entire family are Redskins fans. The intra-conference rivalry makes for great banter and family bonding, but ultimately, their lives are unaffected by the outcomes.
“There are some people who take things so seriously. It’s usually one of us cheering and then the other,” Gray said. “At the end of the day, they aren’t paying me, and they could both pick up and relocate to any other city at the drop of a dime.”